Young’s pubs’ Chris Knights: ‘Healthy eating isn’t a trend, it’s a culture’

By Tom Gatehouse, Food Spark

- Last updated on GMT

Food expert: Chris Knights is the group executive chef for Young's and Geronimo pubs
Food expert: Chris Knights is the group executive chef for Young's and Geronimo pubs
The group executive chef talks huge changes in customer viewpoints, why the Burger Shack will continue to draw crowds this summer and how every Young’s pub now has a vegan option.

Knights on Paper

  • Started as a chef at the age of 16 in his mum’s local pub
  • Served as a development chef for Out of Town Restaurants Group and Funny Bones Foodservice
  • Just celebrated seven years as group executive chef at Young’s
  • Young’s, one of the biggest operators of pubs in London and the Southeast, owns around 250 different outposts across their portfolio. Chris Knights, still at the tender age of 34, is the company’s group executive chef, with his role in the company encompassing everything from food to staff.
  • His small team of divisional executive chefs act as lieutenants in a large army, with Knights rarely found in the same place twice in a row – very much a theme of his career.
  • Starting as a chef proper as a 16-year-old in his mum’s local pub, Knights honed his early food ambitions and went on to cook at Rosette level, before diving into the world of the development chef.
  • For Out of Town Restaurants Group, he headed up everything food related and played a key role in opening 35 restaurants/coffee shops across many major shopping centres and retail parks – all the while living out of a suitcase in a hotel room.
  • This dramatically changed after a move to Funny Bones Foodservice, where he switched hotel rooms for jet-setting around the globe, working with American, Mexican and Caribbean food products in hotels, marketplaces and restaurants as far as Jamaica – where he has just returned from a two-week holiday having reached the seven-year mark as Young’s group executive chef.

Food Spark

Chris Knights says:

My first interaction with food came at home. ​We like to get round the table for a big roast, that kind of thing, and my mum’s a big foodie. She – ‘My old girl’ – actually runs a pub in the town I grew up in and that’s where I started, chopping carrots and peeling potatoes as a 13-year-old helping out.

With all the chef shortages that we’ve had in this country,​ the head chef eventually offered me a job as a chef there. It was a case of: “Right Chris, this is how you make a Bearnaise!”

I suppose I’ve come full circle, really.​ After my time in the local pub, I left to be a development chef for foodservice companies – which was a lot of travelling – and now I’m developing the very meals my family and I love back home for Young’s.

My days vary enormously.​ Today, for example, I started at our Young’s development centre in Wandsworth to try out a new style of oven and also to live stream a training session with the academy. Then I shot to The Alma pub round the corner to work with the guys from The Guinea Grill in Mayfair, who are developing pies and selections of grilled meats with us for the summer.

On other days, you’ll find me operating anything from refresher courses to chef forums​ (where we discuss recipe improvements and seasonality, among other things). I also arrange trips, such as a foraging trip to Colchester, which we’ll be doing at some point soon, as rewards/incentives for core team’s hard work over the year.

In terms of the food offering at Young’s,​ it’s all about consistency, individuality and that seasonality. Every Young’s and Geronimo pub has its own identity and it’s really important to show that through the menu, with the best of British foundations.

My role is normally on a one-to-one basis​ with individual pubs as they have ownership of their menus, bar five classics which every outpost must have: a burger, a pie, fish and chips, a steak and a chicken burger.

The only other point on the menu we make sure is ever-present now​ is a vegetarian and a vegan option. It used to be just a veggie option but, in the last few months we’ve added vegan too because of the current climate. So that could be something like an orange, pomegranate, roasted beets and dukkah salad. Or maybe a roast pumpkin, blood orange, chestnuts and black cabbage dish.

Healthy eating isn’t a trend,​ it’s a culture – I’m a flexitarian myself!

Our customer base has changed massively​ in the last five years. More and more, people want to understand where their food comes from, they want a higher quality product and they even want to know what happens to wasted food. We have to be environmentally friendly and offer affordable luxury in a pub environment. There’s a lot to think about!

Our Burger Shack concept is also going strong.​ With customers veering towards snacking and quick meals, we came up with the idea to produce a high-quality product in 10 minutes or less.

We’ve 30 different, high-volume sites operating with Burger Shacks,​ and it’s been going three years now. The younger demographic really go with it, and it’s great to have, say, 300 heads in a garden and to be able to feed them quickly and easily.

It’s been a brilliant year​ and I’m actually in the process of arranging a trip to New York for some of the team to celebrate. I’d love to take them to Eleven Maddison Park, but at $400-a-head it might be the only stop on the trip!

This article was supplied by The Morning Advertiser’s sister title www.foodspark.com​​. Food Spark’s mission is to keep food professionals ahead of culinary trends. Request a trial here: uryc@sbbqfcnex.pbz​​ ​​

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